Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I figured this was a good excuse to talk about some of my favorite Irish lit. If you wanted to read something Irish this St. Patrick’s day, here are a few recommendations:
Translations by Brian Friel: Friel was a seminal twentieth century Irish playwright, whose Field Day Theatre Company (founded in 1980 with Stephen Rea) was created to bring themes of Irish national identity to life on the stage in Northern Ireland. Translations, the first production they put on, is a phenomenal piece of theatre, which tells the story of a group of Irish Gaelic-speaking students in the 1800s. One day English soldiers arrive in this fictional Donegal village to conduct an Ordnance Survey and anglicize all Irish-Gaelic place names, and their inability to communicate with the native Irish speakers sets the stage for the story. Both an incisive commentary on English imperialism and a fascinating look at the function of language, Translations is a masterful piece of writing. Highly recommended reading for all theatre fans. You can also listen to the 2010 BBC radio play here! + my full review here.
Tender by Belinda McKeon: Set in Dublin in the 1990s, Tender is a story about the friendship between two university students. When quiet, insecure Catherine meets the confident and charismatic James, the two build a strong friendship which quickly devolves into an intense and unhealthy relationship, as something irreconcilable sits between them. This is a story about desire, about obsession, about the parts of human nature that we want to distance ourselves from, because they’re so ugly and raw. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent social climate of 90s Ireland, this book is one of the most intense and frantic and claustrophobic things I’ve ever read. In a good way, because McKeon’s stellar prose makes this impossible to put down.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh: I am absolutely obsessed with Martin McDonagh, best known for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. But before he was a director, he was a playwright, and in my opinion The Pillowman is his masterpiece. In this play, a writer in a totalitarian state is brought in for questioning about a series of recent murders which bear a striking resemblance to the content of his stories. Typical of McDonagh’s nonpareil black humor, The Pillowman is strange, moving, gruesome, horrible, poignant, and wickedly funny. If you liked In Bruges, you’ll probably love this. If you hate morbid humor, stay far, far away. As I love black humor, this is one of my all time favorite plays.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: Honestly life-changing. If you haven’t read Frank McCourt’s memoir about growing up poor in twentieth century Limerick, you must. I read this when I was probably too young to get everything out of it that I could have, so I intend to reread it one day, but it’s stayed with me for years. Born in New York, Frank McCourt and his Irish immigrant parents move back to their homeland during the Great Depression. Honest, forgiving, and relentlessly depressing, this is a truly poignant book that I find myself unintentionally measuring all other memoirs against.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: This is one of the few cases where I actually liked the movie better! I blame Saoirse Ronan’s incredible performance. But I liked the book too. A really interesting story about Irish immigration from the point of view of a young girl who finds herself torn between two cultures. If at times not as emotionally resonant as it has the potential to be, Brooklyn is still a great examination of the factors which lead one to leave their home and start a life in an entirely new country. Toibin is a really fantastic writer; his prose is steady and it’s easy to read this book in a single sitting. Not an all time favorite, but one which I find myself liking more and more, the more I think back on it. So if you’re curious, definitely check it out!
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: And finally, a classic. And another play, because I love them and the Irish do them so well. This ridiculous story about mistaken identities remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Whoever said classics aren’t fun clearly hasn’t read Oscar Wilde.
What are some of your favorite Irish plays and novels? I’m always looking for recs!